Monday, January 03, 2011

The First Sergeant and the Shitbag

I hadn’t been on Okinawa for too long when the First Sergeant of our communications company dressed down a Marine in front of the whole company during morning formation. This was winter of 1987 and I was stationed at Camp Kinser. Many of the buildings shown on the base's official page were not there in 1987.

I guess you might need some background about Marine life. Everyday, after we woke up, we would go to the chow hall and eat breakfast or go for a morning run and then eat breakfast. After “morning chow” we would report to the company compound for our 8 hour day of work. The first part of that day would be the morning formation. We would gather in our platoons and the platoon sergeant would do a roll call. After than each platoon sergeant would, in turn, report aloud to the company First Sergeant that each member of their platoon was accounted for. Then the First Sergeant would relate any pertinent information to us and then release the platoons to their platoon sergeants who would then relate any information related to each platoon. The First Sergeant was the liaison between the enlisted Marines in a company and the officers in command. If you ever did something stupid that could possibly attract the attention of the company commanding officer it was nice to have a good First Sergeant. A capable First Sergeant could make life in the barracks endurable. this particular First Sergeant was a Gunnery Sergeant. Most of my First Sergeants over my time in the Marines were Gunnery Sergeants.

Our company was part of the 3rd FSSG. This unit is now called the 3rd Marine Logistics Group. From what I understood we provided support for the Marine combat division stationed on Okinawa. I never fully knew what that meant because I spent 90% of my work time in Okinawa cleaning and testing radios. The only time I ever really did my job, which was radio operator, was the few times I set up a safety radio link for weapon firings. Since no one ever blew themselves up while I was on duty that job consisted of hourly radio checks. Fun stuff. I did get to shoot a .50 caliber machine gun and an automatic grenade launcher on two separate shoots so it wasn’t a total loss.

This Marine was embarrassed in front of God and everybody because he had the expensive habit of writing bad checks. If I remember correctly he had written over $1500 in bad checks. This was a lot of money in 1987 when a Private First Class probably made around $700 a month. It’s odd to think it was a problem now but before ATM cards servicemen writing bad checks was a real problem, not just on Okinawa but at military stores everywhere. Before the ATM in order to get some cash for spending money you had to write a check at the PX. Every Friday I would go to the PX and write a check to cash for around $50 and that would get me through my weekend. I never bounced a check but I was a regular check floater. Since checks took a few days to hit if you had no money in your account on Thursday and payday was Friday then writing a check for that case of Budweiser was no problem. That check would clear on Tuesday with plenty of time to spare. If you were smart you could do this for years and never bounce a check.

Occasionally someone would get into trouble. There were several bases on Okinawa and if you were enterprising you could write check after check after check. In 1987 it could be several days before all of your checks hit your account. It was hard to keep track of who the trouble makers were so you could write checks for cash at $200 a pop at five bases in one day with little effort. Some guys got into a lot of trouble. This one particular Private was legendary. He had been reduced in rank, confined to the barracks and put in the brig. Each time he was given a little freedom he was back to writing bad checks, borrowing money with no intention of repaying and even borrowed someones bicycle and sold it. The First Sergeant had no idea what to do with the guy. He couldn’t really punish him anymore since he was on his way out of the Corps on a bad conduct discharge and he decided he needed to protect those in his company unfamiliar with the guy. So he called him out in front of the company during a morning formation.

The rest of us had no idea what was about to happen when he called Private “Jones” to come front and center. Neither did Jones.

“I want the rest of you Marines to take a good look at Private Jones.” He paused and at this point Jones is standing at attention to the left of the First Sergeant.. I remember him being a little paunchy with curly light brown hair.

“Private Jones,” the Gunny continued, “is a piece of shit.” Now Jones’ head drops and he’s staring at the ground and a hushed exclamations reverberated down the ranks. Rather than tell us to shut up he paused to let the shock set in. He continued, “Private Jones has written $1500 in bad checks and he owes dozens of other Marines hundreds of dollars. Do not go out on the town with this Marine. Do not lend this Marine money.” Another pause, “Do not loan this Marine your bike. He will take your money and your bike and you’ll never see any of it again. This Marine is not your friend. He will offer to show you around and take you on to town and will write bad checks to show you a good time and he will help you do the same. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Yes, Gunny,” we chanted back.

“Excellent. You’re dismissed, Jones.”

I had never seen anything like it and never would again. I’m glad I never saw something like that again because it was awful to witness someone, even if it was due to his own doing, humiliated like that. Jones was known to approach Marines who had just arrived on the island. He would take them out on the town, write bad checks, spend money like crazy and borrow money. He would convince others to write bad checks and show them how easy it was. He was a bad egg and he been busted several times and had spent time in the brig and he was waiting around to get his bad conduct discharge. The First Sergeant must have figured that the best way to protect the Marines under his command was to reveal Jones for what he was so he couldn't corrupt anyone else while he was still with the company. So he did.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

That was good. I think every unit had a guy like private Jones. Your Gy was wise to warn his Marines.
Yes Okinawa was the land of the floating check. My bank was in NC so I had at least a week to float.